Environmentalists and air quality regulators cheered, but industry analysts and insiders took a cautious wait-and-see approach Wednesday as Toyota unveiled “Project Portal,” a prototype hydrogen fuel cell heavy truck it hopes will change the way freight is hauled from ports around the globe.

The truck, a Class 8 drayage truck developed over the past year in secret by a tiny team of Toyota Motor North America engineers, still has a long way to go before commercial adoption is an option.

“We’ve very intrigued, but it is early days,” said Steve Tam, vice president of ACT Research Co., an Indiana-based commercial trucking analysis and forecasting firm.

“Toyota has planted a flag that we hope many others will follow,” said Mary Nichols, head of the influential California Air Resources Board.

Toyota is aiming for commercialization of the truck as it pushes to expand the market potential of the cutting-edge fuel cell technology it now uses for transit buses in Tokyo and limited-production Mirai  sedans in California, Japan and parts of Europe.

The prototype fuel cell drayage truck, the company says, is faster, quieter and far, cleaner than the now-dominant diesels.

Toyota will launch a freight-hauling test operation out of the Port of Los Angeles in the coming month to gather hard data, including the cost figures it will need to make an economic case for fuel cell technology in heavy trucks – and for development of the hydrogen fueling facilities that would be needed to support them.

While “always interested in new and emerging truck technologies,” they must first be shown “to demonstrate reliability and a return on investment for fleets,” said American Trucking Associations spokesman Sean McNally. “We will be monitoring the testing of this vehicle with great interest.”

A principle driver of fuel cell technology in commercial transportation is emissions reduction. Diesel truck operations – especially in port areas and freight depots where thousands of trucks ply the roads each day – are a prime source of harmful emissions.

California, a huge potential market, has strict emissions-cutting regulations in place and provides substantial financial support for companies developing low- and zero-emission commercial vehicles. State regulators on Friday, for instance, will announce a $12.5-million grant for a fuel cell bus and hydrogen production facility demonstration in the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs.

And while production of the hydrogen that powers fuel cell electric vehicles isn’t clean, the vehicles themselves have no tailpipe emissions.

“These zero-emission truck technologies are critical for addressing global climate change and particularly California’s air quality programs, especially in heavily polluted communities” near port facilities, said Don Anair, deputy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ clean vehicles program.

Toyota’s decision to push into heavy trucks “is exactly what we need to see because we need to bring zero-emission technology to the goods-movement sector as soon as possible,” said Bill Magavern, policy director for the California-based Coalition for Clean Air.  “We hope it proves out and we see hydrogen fuel cell trucks on the roads as soon as possible.”

While there is scant data on emissions from fuel cell heavy trucks, Anair’s team recently studied fuel cell buses and found that for total lifecycle emissions of greenhouse gases, fuel cell buses were 60 percent cleaner than diesel buses. Lifecycle studies account for emissions from the production and transportation of the fuel through its use in the vehicle.

Nitrogen oxide, or NOx, emissions – which California regulators want to virtually eliminate – were 70 percent less for fuel cell electric buses than for diesel buses, Anair said.

Toyota’s announcement of a real-world test of a fuel cell heavy truck “is especially encouraging because it is important for major vehicle manufacturers to be involved and it is critical to get out of the lab into the real world,” said Anair.

The only other announced project for Class 8 fuel cell truck development is from Utah-based Nikola Motors, which showed a mock-up of a hydrogen long-haul rig late last year but has said it will be 2019 before it has a prototype ready for testing. Nikola also intends to develop its own national network of fueling stations.

Fuel cell trucks definitely have a place in the heavy-duty sector, said Bill Van Amburg, senior vice president and head of trucking programs for Calstart, the Pasadena-based clean transportation technologies coalition.

A recent Calstart study of business cases for various zero-emission commercial vehicles found “strong potential” for fuel cell Class 8 trucks, for both drayage and longer-trip use, he said. There is a strong market for low- and zero-emission commercial vehicles in megacities around the globe as well as in emissions-impacted port cities, Van Amburg said.

“Paris is looking at bans in the center city on polluting vehicles,” he said. “Consider the value of having a truck that could do business in such regions.”

Toyota believes environmental concerns can help build the business case for the truck.

“We understand what this technology’s tremendous potential can be, and the meaningful benefit that fuel cell technology can make in society as a true zero-emission powertrain,” Bob Carter, Toyota Motor North America’s executive vice president for sales, said Wednesday at the port complex during the public announcement of the upcoming truck test.

Still, it is economics and performance that ultimately will decide whether commercial truck operators are willing to acquire fuel cell trucks for their fleets, said Mike Tunnell, environmental research director for the American Transportation Research Institute. The institute is a nonprofit associated with the American Trucking Associations.

“The development of hydrogen fueling infrastructure is a consideration” as well, Tunnell said.

That’s also of concern to regulators.

“There’s always a little bit of a chicken and egg problem,” said Nichols of the Air Resources Board. “It’s a question of seeing that there’s a market. I think you would see investors coming forward to fill the necessary infrastructure once they see that the market is really going to be there.”

California’s Energy Commission, which helps finance development of hydrogen fueling stations for passenger cars, intends to be active on the commercial front as well, commission member Janea Scott told Trucks.com.

“As this market continues to grow, we will certainly be looking at how do we build the infrastructure,” Scott said.

Fueling stations are necessary before vehicle production can start in earnest, and the commission’s intent is to “stay out just a little bit ahead of that curve,” Scott said.

Nichols told Trucks.com that she believes fuel cells offer the best approach for zero-emission trucking in the heavy-duty sector and that “we would expect that we would be able to start seeing these go into mass production in the matter of a couple of years.”

As for the industry – which has seen numerous attempts to replace diesel trucks falter: “In general, these types of technology development projects are of interest to the industry,” said ATRI’s Funnell. “We will continue tracking Toyota’s efforts.”

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